But however cynically I might view this alluvial veneration, it obviously carries great meaning for those compelled to do it. It’s the equivalent of a vast sob of relief at returning to a safe world, even if it is one that ejected them, or that they rejected for any of a thousand good reasons, many years ago. It’s back to a world of familiar slights, and perhaps even greater aggravations than the ones that they’ve left behind, but they know by heart its conciliatory but unafraid language of human transaction. Running from fear, and with fear in their hearts, they now need fear nothing.
This relief is what was on display at the debarking scrums at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport when Air India’s airlift planes flew in from Cairo and Alexandria with their complement of Indians fleeing from the unrest in Egypt. Some folded at the knees and kissed the ground; others rushed into the arms of relatives more tearful than they and were then reduced to tears themselves, for relief from grief is as catching as a yawn. Yet others first noticed the cameras, videocams and boom mikes of the jostling media and waded into the melee to add their subjective, nervy and, oddly, patriotic takes on an unfolding situation already being professionally covered by the international media.
The Indian media has this odd fascination with returnees, whom they either see as prodigals or penitents when they are most likely neither: they are, usually, running for their lives. The reactions of those who paid Air India’s obscenely opportunistic ticket fee of between Rs. 45,000 and Rs. 55,000 per head – when the usual rate Mumbai-Cairo rate is Rs. 18,000-20,000 – to haul their families back to India ranged from animosity towards what is essentially a government carrier tasked with the government’s altruistic responsibilities to stunned resignation to the wry gratefulness of aliens who had escaped an inscrutable crisis in an alien land. (Also, Egypt Air, Qatar Airways, Oman Air and some other foreign carriers were charging equally preposterous fares, so Air India wasn’t alone in plundering the desperate.)
Some of the returnees, though, were obviously decamping from responsibility to a nation that had gladly entertained them and their businesses for decades, and it was this group, perhaps a minority, that I noticed riled – intellectually, not in any actionable sense – some friends of mine on Facebook. One of these friends asked in his status, genuinely confused: “Need to understand this... when something goes wrong and Indians are affected in, say, the US or Australia, the sentiment is that Indians are as much a part of these countries as the locals. Helping the economy, etc. I'm sure Indians in Egypt are no different. If that's so, why do they need to flee when an internal strife starts? Or is the right to vote all that matters? Or am I getting this completely wrong?”
The responses were indicative of how we in India see NRIs (although Egypt-based NRIs, who don’t inhabit a familiar Western landscape but an almost mythic one, are strange creatures). One commentator wrote (and pardon the syntax): “unlike in US of A…they do not have similar regulations on citizenship…hence even if one wants to defy ... he doesn’t have an option…”, which is a questionable analysis. Another wrote: “I'm sure if there were a civil war in, say, France, foreign govts would offer to fly their citizens out. no? The situation in Australia wasn’t exactly comparable to Egypt now, or say the first Gulf war (when people were repatriated). There’s obviously a difference between a situation where some people are having issues in a foreign country (when you might offer consular support) and one where there's fear of loss of life (when you might want to fly them out). Presumably they want to leave, nobody’s forcing them to, right. Which suggests they are less than fully invested in remaining, which is surely their own business? … I think the complexity of an immigrant’s relationship with country of origin and adopted home is difficult to make prescriptions about from the outside. A version of what you're saying (not what you’re saying, but a sort of ‘take it to its limit’) is the arguments used by far-right parties against immigrants - they have divided loyalties, so they’re somehow ‘less French/German/American’ than ‘us’. But why should loyalties not be reducible to you're either X or Y? Just a thought. So presumably just as some Indians in Egypt want to leave, some will want to stay. It's up to them, negotiating what it means to live there, to decide, not for us to prescribe for them how they ‘should’ feel about the various bits of their identity.”
I present this quote in full because I doubt I could have said it better. But the questions still remain: Is an Indian-Egyptian NRI any different from an Indian-American one? If the US were to explode tomorrow in a bravura of revolutionary fervour (although I personally can’t see that happening unless the Far Right in its vaulting, multibillion dollar Manhattan offices or the anarchist militias in the boondocks or Hugo Chavez were to somehow flatten Capitol Hill), would Indian-Americans tear back to India? Rather, how many would? And of which generation? I suspect first-generation immigrants might: the umbilicus to the matribhumi might have been cut but the phantom pain still bothers them. The second generation – the one that’s invested so deeply in the American spirit as to be inseparable from its source – wouldn’t budge an inch. (Then, again, what do I know? I’ve only been internally displaced so often all over India – make that South and Southeast Asia – that my spoor is a tracker’s nightmare.)
Every book I’ve read on the Indian “immigrant experience” has resounded out of the West (leaving aside Naipaul, who is, to my mind, the prototypal postmodern immigrant anomaly who can only gain selfhood by not belonging, anywhere). I know nothing about Indian-Egyptians, or Indian-Chinese, or, indeed, Indian-Norwegians, although I did once know an example of the latter, and he didn’t know his elbow from his coccyx about where his loyalties lay. (They lay, it seemed then, with the shipping company where he worked and with his Brazilian-Norwegian girlfriend, but the only thing he hated about Norway was that even the women were two feet taller than he was. He eventually became naturalised, and for all I know his children are short, Bengali-sized Norsemen but no worse off than that.)
Perhaps now, with some Indian-Egyptians confessing to have left behind “everything” that they had industriously built up over the years, we’ll get to hear of the Indian-African/Indian-Mediterranean experience. Of the 3,600 Indians in Egypt, 2,200 had their holdings in Cairo; most of those in Cairo and Alexandria were climbing over one another to catch the flights to India. Almost consensually, they say that it wasn’t so much the violence that panicked them: it was that the banks were closed – it’s true that the Arab International Bank was robbed clean and 5,000 prisoners broke out of a jail in the Faiyum governorate, about 130 km southwest of Cairo – and that the ATMs weren’t working. Those Indians who were spread out thin elsewhere in Egypt, however, chose to stay, borrow from friends and neighbours and defend their homesteads as members of neighbourhood watch committees.
To their credit, Indians were hardly alone in leaving the roiling passions of Tahrir Square to the mercies of Egyptian nonviolence (although, having been bottle-fed on Gandhi, they should hardly have been so dismayed about the bonhomie there that they should immediately descend on Cairo International Airport). Among the other governments that evacuated their citizens were China, Japan, the US, Turkey, Greece, Germany, Belgium, Azerbaijan and Italy. But the governments of the Philippines, Thailand, Russia and Brunei braved it out, with Thailand expressly advising the 2,600 Thais in Egypt to dig in and stay put. As for the Russians, about 40,000 of them, disinclined to give up being toasted in 22 °°C of the Red Sea resorts, refused to return to temperatures plummeting to a low of -14 °°C back home, and nor did the doughty Germans, faced with weathering wind-chill temps averaging -3 °°C.
Perhaps the Russians knew that revolutions don’t really take a toll of outsiders. And we Indians, waiting for a perpetually-deferred revolution to happen at ‘home’, flee crises where we find them because we haven’t a clue about how to deal with them.